Oldschool Orcs and Horrible Hordes

When looking at fiction from the 80s, you often run into things that make you think “yeah, we probably wouldn’t do it that way anymore”. It’s not even that the core ideas have to be actively offensive, but just that there are much better ways to handle the presentation. Sometimes just a bit of recontextualization or the adding of a few nuanced details can make a big difference in going from stereotype back to archetype. In my current attempt to set up a big lavish campaign using the 1987 Forgotten Realms Grey Box amd the 1988 The Savage Frontier sourcebook that sticks true to the material with only expanding but not overwriting the texts, I’ve been coming across a number of things that I mentally highlighted as requiring a special touch to put them into a less dodgey looking light. Mostly it’s stuff that really just needs to be seen in its full context to take the edge of the initial dubious perception, but there is one thing that requires some real heavy work to salvage.

The primitive sub-human hordes of savages that descend on the god-fearing civilized people to murder indiscriminately and burn and plunder because it is in their nature and they lack the mental capacity to stop being evil.

Yes, orcs are fantasy monster. They are not real and don’t have any actual physical similarities with real human populations. But they are still just the same age old stereotype that has been used to demonize and villify whatever foreigners or even local minorities a people is in conflict with or just happens to make a convenient scapegoat and victim for exploitation. What do we gain by adding a monster to our fantasy worlds for which this isn’t a racist stereotype but actually the objective truth? What interesting and meaningful stories do we proeuce by having an endless supply of creatures that are just like people in every way, except that we are totally in the right to kill them by the hundreds with no questions having to be asked? Do we want to play out the things horrible racists thought should be done to other people based on their circumstances of birth?

No. There just is no way to twist and turn this to make it into something that is entertaining and fun, or at least rewarding or interesting to play. The primitive subhumans who are always to be killed on sight because their nature and limited intellect makes it impossible for them not to be evil is unsalvagable.

But in the world that is described in The Savage Frontier, the large populations of orcs and their numerous bands of raiders are a very prominent and integral component of the history, culture, and currently power relationships of the entire region. Simply removing the orcs in their entirety would be a deep cutting change to the whole setting that would already end the ambition to find out how much fun and depth can be gained from the old setting before it underwent several big retcons and dramatic style changes. The other quick and easy option is to simply make the orcs people like any other, with free will, a deep culture, and a multi-faceted society with many individual expressions. With good people and bad people, and a majority who just want to live their lives in peace like everyone else. Like we see for example in the later Elder Scrolls or WarCraft games. And this is exactly how I see the human Uthgardt barbarian tribes as something that can be handled without any cringe or allusions to old stereotypes and propaganda. But the orcs that are described in the material are very much distinguished as something else entirely. Giving them the same treatment would result in the two populations being kind of redundant, and I also feel like it wouldn’t allow the orcs to play their intended role. This has been something I have been pondering a lot for the last two weeks. Eventually I just asked the good people of the Enworld forum if they had any thoughts on this, and after a few first reflexive protests of blasphemy for even considering the question, I was given a couple of really good pointers.

First of all, we of course have to ask what is actually established about orcs at this point in the history of both the game and the setting. In the 1st edition Monstrous Manual, orcs are Lawful Evil, not Chaotic Evil. I generally think alignment for indovodual player characters is really stupid, but for monsters it can be a useful guideline for what the creator had in mind regarding their overall society and general behavior. The next thing is that the Intelligence for orcs is given as “average (low)”. This indicates a leaning towards slightly below average, but overall they generally as smart as humans, dwarves, and halflings. Already we see here that orcs are not presented as dumb brute barbarians. We also see that in the depictions of orcs from that period of D&D. Violent and evil, with armor that looks dark and shaggy, yes. But still an army that knows what it is doing. These are people who are aware of their actions, not purely controlled by animal instincts. The first thing I would do with orcs and their place in the setting is to present them as marauding armies who are feared for their organized raids, not just wild packs of roaring predators that hack down everything in their past. NPCs within the game world may still talk about them like that because of their racist prejudices, but in encounters with orcs the players should see them look and act more like lawful soldiers of an intelligent people.

Going through all the paragraphs mentioning orcs in both of the two sources I am working with, one thing that stood out is that the history of the orcs is deeply interwoven with the history of the dwarves. You can’t really study one without studying the other. As the 1st edition sources say very explicitly in numerous places, the dwarves and the orcs have been in a war for extinction for thousands of years. And the dwarves know that they have lost. In this version of the Realms, there is only a single dwarven king in all of the north, holding the last major dwarven city. And it’s not the last heroic stronghold where all dwarvenkind is rallying to turn the tide and return their people to glory. Most dwarves have accepted that it is over and that their only two remaining options are to settle as a minority in human populations or to seal the doors of their mountain holds and wait out the end of their civilization in dignity. With the big sanitization of the setting with the 2nd edition, the dwarves to take back two of their old cities and strive towards rebuilding their past glory, but the original version of the Realms had none of that. The sources mention quite frequently that the major orc settlements are inside old dwarven cities. The Citadel of Many Arrows right outside the gates of Silverymoon and Sundabar being the only one described, but with many more high up and deep below the mountains clearly implied. There even is a mention of competition over the same resources in their common homelands, but nothing more detailed is given about that.

One really good pointer someone gave me for thinking about the regular hordes of orc raiders descending into the lowlands like migratory locusts that consume the landscapes they are passing through. Coming out in large numbers from nowhere to feed and then seemingly disappearing again for several years. While that does have the old association of people with vermin, thinking about the food supply of the orc populations is a great starting point for giving them more depth. While there are large orc tribes in the High Forest and the Evermoors, the largest populations are in the Spine of the World, the Ice Mountains, and the Grey Peaks. All places with very limited food sources. And when considering fictional societies, it’s always a good start to ask “What do they eat?”

The first source of food when thinking of orcs is of course hunting for meat. Living undergound in the mountains while being snowed in means that the orcs will need a lot of food stored for the winter and will have a large demand for fresh food as soon as it is possible to come out and move around again. Both are good reasons to have huge hunting expeditions going considerable long distances to find enough prey to feed the many tens of thousands of people back home. This could be the main driving factor for large numbers of orc warriors descending from the mountains all at once on a regular basis. Not to wantonly destroy farms and murder everyone they come across, or to satisfy their endless craving for gold, but to collect and return home with food. A great alternative to hunting deer is of course to just steal some cows. Lots of meat that stays fresh until you reach home and that even has the dignity of walking on its own legs. And the Surbrin and Dessarin valley (and to a lesser extent the lower Delimbyr valley) are described as being big cattle raising areas. While agriculture isn’t that big in these northern lands, the sparsely populated prairies are pefect for raising cattle. And as such, perfect for rustling cattle as well. And of along the way you come across poorly defended barns full of sacks with grain and flour, that’s an opportunity no orc could pass on.

Thinking of the orcs in their mountains had me think of the Vikings from Norway and Iceland. An important factor in their raids was that their own agriculture was pretty awful and as a result their economy not much to speak of either. With little surplus of their own to trade, buying nice things from other peoples was not much of an option. If you want to bring some nice gold necklace or expensive fabrics for making clothes for the lady back home buy you have no money, just steal that shit from others! Or steal their money and use that to buy expensive stuff from merchants. I think that if we think of constantly raiding bands of orcs more like viking raiders who are in it for the plunder instead of a rabbid horde out for blood and carnage, we have a much better basis to consider orcs as NPCs instead of hungry monsters. Of course, this makes little difference for the human farmers or dwarven soldiers who suffer an attack from a roving orc army. As mentioned above, there is nothing wrong with the image of mindless murder machines existing among the NPC population. It’s just that as a GM who plays orcs when players interact with them, there should be more complexity given to them than that.

While players are unlikely to ever see them, the old conquered dwarven fortresses and vast cave systems in the mountains make for a good explanation for why we always only get to see lawful evil warriors. You can’t just have a whole society only of warriors. But the orc raiders we get to see are not at all representative of orc society, no more than a viking longship tells us about life in a Norwegian village. All the things that are said about orcs in the source texts might be true. But those are statements about orc armies and raiding parties. They are not statements about orc society.

Can a whole species and society truly be evil and perists over many generations? That seems hard to believe. Can all marauding bandits be evil? Duh, of course they can. That kind of comes with the job description.

Finally, there is an idea that apparently originates from the writers of a 5th edition monster books. While individual orcs might be intelligent beings with the capacity to consider their actions and exercise free will, orc society as a whole is not free to choose its own way. More so than maybe any other people other than the drow, the orcs are a society that is directly under the hand of a single despotic god. Gruumsh is not just some distant creator of the orcs in times immemorial, he is the ruler and master of the whole orc species. Not in the way of direct supernatural control of the mind of every individual orc, but all orc tribes are part of a single universal hierarchy with Gruumsh at the top. Through his shamans, Gruumsh gives direct orders to all the orc kings and chiefs who in the end are obliged to execute his will and his plans for the people. And when the ultimate dictator at the top is a god, there is little room for resistance and no hope of revolution. In this context we can very well imagine that orcs are physically capable of chosing different ways to live, but it’s the hand of their god that keeps them on their paths and that crushes even the thought that existence for the orcs could be different. This doesn’t make the actions of any orc less evil, but it provides a basis for why we never see orc tribes choosing a different life. Orcs who consider different choices probably appear regularly, but in orc society under the rule of Gruumsh, these can be crushed effectively without their thoughts reaching other ears.

So, in closing, I do believe that the situation is not hopeless. The amount of additional work is quite significant, but I believe that it is indeed possible to have orcs in the Savage Frontier, in the role they were intended, in ways that are not wildly implausible and offensive to sensibilites, only by adding to the established material and without removing or rewriting any of it. Would I go through all this trouble to make an orc horde work in a new setting I create? Absolutely not. I really don’t think it’s worth it to have a great race of evil as a regular enemy if going with actual humans can create much more interesting and nuanced situations and conflicts. But my fascination with this old setting and my dream to really make it shine with all the great potential that was thrown out so early in its existence to be replaced with cozy mush makes it seem worthwhile for me to invest this sweat and blood into this effort.

Return to The Savage Frontier

Forgotten Realms Campaign Set

As I might have mentioned in my recent posts, the Forgotten Realms bug has bitten me again. In particular the world presented in the AD&D 1st edition Grey Box and The Savage Frontier. This is the setting of Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights, which were two my first fantasy games, and a few years later I was one of the GMs and level designers of a huge German NWN server network that ran for several years and set in the same region. It really was my first campaign setting and I lived and breathed that stuff for several years during my whole time as a 3rd edition GM. I pretty much lost interest in it after that and eventually went into homebrewing my own settings, but every couple of years, I remember that little The Savage Frontier book, that I earlier had dismissed as being entirely superseded by the much superior The North box and the Silver Marches book, and think of all the cool ideas that were lost in the later versions and I never got to use in the adventures I ran. While I currently have a new homebrew setting in the fire and another one in the drawer to work on any time the fancy strikes me, I also really just want to start a new campaign in the new year and go out to take the OSE Advanced rules for a spin. And The Savage Frontier is looking as attractive as it always does.

The Savage Frontier

FR6: The Savage Frontier is one of 12 expansions for the original Grey Box campaign set. I think it’s Janelle Jaquays’ greatest work and possibly the best campaign setting sourcebook released for any RPG. Like all the books in the FR series, this one is really thin. Only 64 pages plus a really cool map of the entire region, which I used as the basis for my own giant hexmap. But this thing is just packed with content. One way in which it accomplishes that is that it is entirely setting description. There are no pages spend on new character options, spells, magic items, or monsters. This is all content for GMs to use as starting points for creating their own adventures. The amount of information that is provided on each subject that is covered is usually very sparse. Neverwinter gets a third of a page in total and Sundabar half of that. In contrast to that, The North box has lavish descriptions of various inns and taverns in every town and village. But looking back at it now, those descriptions didn’t actually give you anything that could be used to create adventurers for PCs. I guess that’s where the weird “laughing people around a table” trend started for D&D.

Baldur’s Gate

Dungeon descriptions are just as sparse and in many cases you don’t get anything more than a name and the reason why it has that name. That can seem quite underwhelming and not that helpful, but what The Savage Frontier is made for is to give you ideas to start of creation of your own game content. You’re not meant to discover the Forgotten Realms that have already been made for you, but to create your own version based on the provided seeds and stepping stones. And the stuff here is just really inspiring.

Icewind Dale

My plan for the campaign is to take the Forgotten Realms just as they are presented in these two sources and expand on what is on the page, without referring to any information from later sources that overwrite, contradict, or are thematically mismatched with what was established in 1988. I put the villages of Mornbryn’s Shield and Uluvin on my map because they don’t contradict or subtract anything from the original sources, but it is still the year 1357 with Hellgate Keep and the Blue Bear tribe, a massive orc stronghold right outside Silverymoon and Sundabar, Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul, and all that other awesome metal shit! Also, the North is truly a Savage Frontier! It is a region that has been settled by humans from the South only fairly recently and outside of Waterdeep there is only a sparse scattering of homesteads raising cattle, sheep, and horses on the prairies. The elves are long gone. All that remains are a few stragglers occasionally showing up in human cities. The dwarves are still hanging on, but only barely. King Harbromm of Citadel Adbar is the last dwarven king in the North. They all know that the days of their people are over and that they are the last survivors of a great civilization who are left with the only two choices of fleeing to human cities or isolating themselves completely from the outer world in their greatly diminished underground strongholds.

The Fellowship of the Ring

The concept for the campaign is that the players start out as a (recently) established adventurer company. As laid out and explained in great detail in the Grey Box, adventurers in the Forgotten Realms are very much like mercenary companies roaming from town to town in search for work. Not single wanderers who just happen to be in the same backwater tavern when the plot hook comes crashing through the door. It also makes sense when you take into consideration how the rules for 1st edition were designed and the game presented. A party does not consists of 3 to 4 PCs, but of 10 to 15 PCs, henchmen, and hirelings with a whole baggage train of supplies. I’ve found that with this context, the whole setting makes a lot more sense. Individuals roaming around, hoping that someone is in need of a weird stranger to rescue Lassie from the well never felt really believable to me. But small armies for hire in a huge and sparsely populated wilderness where the next Lord’s knights are weeks away? I can see that being an actual career option.

The 13th Warrior

My idea for adventures is to have essentially miniature sandboxes. The players hear that a town has been suffering from an ongoing threat from barbarians, orcs, monsters from the wilderness, or a strange curse and set out to offer the locals their services to protect them for a fee. It is then up to the party to go explore the surrounding woods and marshes to find the source of the threat and deal with it. They either can make a contract to find and kill a specific monster that is terrorizing the town, or to simply guard the town and patrol the nearby area until the townsfolk think it’s safe enough to not extend the contract for another week or month. I think this is a great setup to combine wilderness exploration and dungeon crawling and have the players discover all kinds of lairs, strange spirits, and odd hermits, while at the same time leaving it entirely in their hands where they want to go and how they want to respond to the things they encounter. No need to script any events with predetermined outcomes. Like any West Marches campaign, this also makes the game very flexible, with the game being able to continue with whatever players are present on that day. The characters of players not playing that day would be staying back guarding the town while the party is out on patrol or hunting.

Thief Dark Project

I first got into the setting around 2002, a few years after I’ve first started playing, and was still regularly playing Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Thief. It was also right after the Lord of the Rings movies had come out. All of which obviously had a huge impact on how I was imagining all those things I was reading about. And which I am using now extensively to scrounge for ideas for the new campaign. The Savage Frontier does not mention gnolls existing in the region. But the gnolls in Baldur’s Gate are extremely cool, way cooler than the mad cackling idiots that appear in more recent D&D material. And of course Kuldahar, the Severed Hand, and the Dragon’s Eye from Icewind Dale are just totally awesome.


I don’t recall when I first watched The 13th Warrior, but that movie is as oldschool D&D as it can possibly get. And it’s vikings, so a perfect fit for the North. They are perhaps my own ideal archetype for what an adventuring company should be like. And the dungeon at the end is a thousand times cooler than straight 10-foot wide stone corridors and square rooms. Skyrim of course came out many years after all these other works. But I still think it’s very much in the same general style as the Savage Frontier. There’s a couple of cool dungeons and caves and other interesting stuff. Again, the sources don’t say if there are any Mammoths in the North, but there very much could be. And pairing them up with stone giants? Yes please!

The early Forgotten Realms look

I first got into Forgotten Realms, RPGs, and even just fantasy in general for the first time with Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, at an age where anything you’re really into probably is going to stick with you forever. Eventually I did cool down significantly on the Forgotten Realms as a good setting for playing campaigns in, and once I threw out 3rd edition and Pathfinder and got interested in B/X, I actually got actively annoyed at how silly and bloated Faerûn had become, and aware of how cloyingly cutesy and twee those 2nd edition sources had been. But a year ago I had decided to sit down with the original AD&D 1st edition Grey Box and some of the FR-series sourcebook and really read them front to back to find the world that was actually originally presented, before the many many retcons of 2nd and 3rd edition.

It’s much smaller and also a much better setting for adventures, with a very different style of fantasy than what D&D has been for the last 20 years. I actually really want to run a big OSE campaign in it now. And I was thinking earlier today what I feel the original Forgotten Realms should look like, and what illustrations I could use to set the tone for players only familiar with the Forgotten Realms of today.

And the answer is Keith Parkinson. Just straight up Keith Parkinson. (click to embiggen)

There are many great Jeff Easley paintings as well, but I think the depth of the background landscape that Parkinson regularly did adds a lot more to the feel of a large and wild world. I also get an impression that the visual designers of both Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale took very big inspiration from Parkinson’s illustrations, which makes them feel more right and on spot for me.

The Savage Frontier – Hexmap of the North

Probably my most commented post on this site has been the hexmap of the Savage Frontier that I made nine years ago. I’ve always been very happy with it, but with a recent interest of starting a new campaign in the region, I’ve been thinking that I could do a lot better now. And here it is.

210 x 100 hexes
6090 x 3200 pixels

The map is directly based on the map from the 1st edition sourcebook FR6: The Savage Frontier, with some additional markers from the 2nd edition The North box. This map uses a 6-mile hex grid over the original AD&D maps. 3rd and 4th edition Forgotten Realms uses considerably altered maps, so distances won’t match exactly with any of those sources. 5th edition maps of the Sword Coast seem to have returned to the original AD&D map shapes but slightly scaled down. Treating the hexes as 5 miles across should get very close to matching the distances of 5th edition sources.

This map comes in three versions. The GM map, which includes all the map markers and labels; the player version, which includes only those places that would be commonly shown on maps the PCs would have access to; and a blank map without any markers or text.

The Savage Frontier – GM Map

The Savage Frontier – Player Map

The Savage Frontier – blank map

The idea behind the three versions is that GMs can easily make their own custom maps showing the area relevant to their campaign or adventure and only include the places that the PCs in their campaign would know about. To make your own custom version, simply open the GM map and the blank map in GIMP, Photoshop, or a similar image editing program, with the blank map covering up the GM map below. Then make the blank map on top partly transparent and simply use the select tool and delete key to make holes through which the labels and text you want are visible. Then set the opacity back to 100% and export the map as a new file. You can then crop the new map file to only the area that you need to make it easier to handle or print out, or do whatever you want with it. Or you can take the blank map and draw whatever icons and text that you want. I would share the original .xcf file, but it’s over 200 MB in size, which is rather impractical.

Use the way in whatever way you like. All I ask for is a link to this page with the original files if you post or upload it somewhere else.

I got a Mastodon

I know, it’s a mammoth. Shuddup.

So with everyone cheering at Elon Musk for finally doing something good for the world by sparing no expenses to shred Twitter, there’s been some recent hubbub about Mastodon. Any many people pointing out that Mastodon isn’t just open-source twitter.

I’ve only really seen Twitter in the Alexandrian page and often thought it looks like it could be a really useful tool for sites like mine, but never considered using it. Because it’s Twitter. Just like I won’t touch Apple, Facebook, or Google. But a similar open-source tool from a nonprofit? And now people seem to have a significant interest in it?

Small RPG sites like this one aren’t the kind of thing that they were 10 years ago. There’s a lot fewer than there used to be, though with new ones still coming up regularly, and many of them only have new posts every month or two, unlike the nearly daily or even multiple daily posts that you see in the early years of many older sites. (Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because most of them say nothing of much relevance.) It also used to be that pretty much all sites were on blogspot, but now there’s also substantial numbers of wordpress sites hosted on private servers. And unlike blogspot, there is, for some reason, no widget that lets you show a list of the sites you follow sorted by most recent updates in the sidebar. Which makes following what others are writing on their sites more laborious, and also more difficult to find new sites. There is of course RPG Planet, which aggregates RSS feeds for sites that are signed up, but I don’t find it to be a perfect solution since it always shows you all the sites that are signed up, even the ones you really might not care for but update pretty frequently. And the first two sentences of a post typically don’t tell you much about what a post is actually about. Also, lots of blogspot sites only allow comments with a google-account, and other people have told me that I am by far not the only one who refuses to use one on principle.

I think Mastodon could be a useful tool to help reaching new audiences for sites like these. As it stands, it seems to me like a pretty closed system that you don’t really are aware of unless you already know about it. I still somehow get pretty frequent comments on my posts even though the only way to find my site is through the link in my Giant In the Playground and Enworld signatures and RPG Planet. (Also Dragonsfoot, but if you hang out there you’re already in the in-group.)

What I want to try out is to put up messages on Mastodon every time I have a new post on my site, with a link and a short summary of what the post is about. (Like Justin Alexander does on Twitter.) I think it would also be useful to share messages of “I just saw this post on another site and thought it’s interesting”. Putting such short posts here on this site would make the whole place look cluttered up and I want to keep what is posted here to meaningful articles that are still worth reading if people browse the site some years later. For simple shoutouts like that, something like Mastodon seems a much more fitting tool. And I can put my opinion out on posts by other people who don’t accept comments without some account or registration, even though the odds of them seeing it is probably pretty low.

I think there is potential to boost the sphere of small private RPG sites with Mastodon, if it can get sufficient momentum. Quite possible that two months from now, everyone has forgotten about it again already, but this sudden surge in interest because of Twitter might be an opportunity.

This is why I have now made a Mastodon account where people can get updates about new posts on Spriggan’s Den. And why I want to encourage other site owners to also give it a try, as well as readers. Maybe this could be a new boost in interactions, which can also be conductive to more ideas worth writing about. And unlike Google+, there’s no significant risk that the service will be shut down in a year or two. :p